Responders need better info sharing

HERSHEY, Pa. — Despite two years of effort, formidable hurdles still affect information exchange between first responders at the local level, members of a panel told the Industry Advisory Council's Executive Leadership Conference today.

"The sector that's the farthest along in information sharing is law enforcement," said Steve Cooper, chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department. "The sector that appears to be the least well-integrated is public health. I think in a way it's a victim of its own success."

Cooper, who led the panel discussion here, repeated the Bush administration's call for an Interstate Communication Expressway project, in which federal government officials would build the infrastructure nationwide and then build offramps into local communities, who would be responsible for taking the system from there, an approach similar to that of the Interstate highway system.

"I believe that we could do this in a relatively short period of time," he said. "As we extend this connection, we add value right away." Separated from the public Internet, the system would be secure, he said.

Cooper said he is concerned about integrating the 23 agencies that were brought together to form DHS, but also believes in the importance of rapid communications between the responders on the ground.

"We know how to do this," he said. "It's time to get on and do it."

Public health departments typically operate within a relatively small area, and, unlike law enforcement agencies, have not always needed the ability to communicate rapidly with other agencies in other locations, Cooper said.

One problem with getting health departments integrated into the information web is, in many cases, a lack of technological readiness, said. Dr. Scott Wetterhall, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist and a consultant to the board of public health in Dekalb County, Ga.

"Many health departments are small and rural," Wetterhall said. And in some cases, "the only technology is a fax machine."

Getting public health data into the loop is essential for protection against biological or chemical terrorist attacks, said John Loonsk, associate director of informatics at CDC. "The point of early detection is to get to early response," he said.

As things stand, Wetterhall added, "We're not prepared. We're better prepared than we were, but we're not prepared."

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